Saturday, December 15, 2007

"There will be Blood," the New Western

The prophecy "There Will Be Blood" is announced against a black drop as the first frame of the eponymous feature: the letters, which recall the white, spindly Gothic script of a hymnal and their appearance in the cinema, underscore the film’s central struggle between religion and capitalism. Indeed, it is the mutual dependence of the twin themes that control the life of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) and all those whom he dominates. Simple dichotomies, such as the black and white of this title frame, become a complex web between the two principal characters in an epic of power; black quickly comes to signify oil and its commander’s smothering properties, while white implies the affected prophetic gesture in the pioneer hymnal of Eli (Paul Dano), a nascent Evangelical minister, and Daniel’s arch-nemesis. The ominous title, Peter’s prophesy of humanity’s gory finale, is a Biblical quotation from Acts, and its implications of fear, and fate apply to the spectator’s viewing experience as well. Anticipation of murder, constantly augmented by dissonant rising chords and Lewis’s driven face reddened by firelight, propel the spectator into the most original cinematic depiction of the American West to date. In the new Western, cowboys and Indians are replaced by the greed of capitalism and the Evangelical Christian church. One might question director Paul Thomas Anderson’s political motivations, (the film premieres as the United States struggle in a war many claim is based on oil and religion.) Though the film can be understood in allegorical terms, it is truly character-driven, showcasing remarkable performances that are only made more effective by the photography of glistening oil and the eeriness of a doom-inflected score.
Daniel Day Lewis delivers without a question what many claim is the performance of his career. Yet his performance of nihilism would be incomplete without the tension produced by the preacher Eli (Paul Dano). Perhaps Paul Dano won the part of Eli because he so convincingly played a similar role of a Bible-thumping teen in "The King." However, here, it is the tension between the actors that empowers their dialogue and the physicality of their gestures towards and against one another make the conflict visually arresting. Although Dano was cast as Eli only four days prior to shooting, the decision was anything but haphazard. Lewis and Dano previously played adversaries in the 2005 film, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," in which Lewis as the father of Rose is angered by Dano’s sexual advances towards his daughter. Though their first film together proved the fierceness of their chemistry, in "There Will Be Blood" the potential of method acting antagonism is reached. Although Lewis’ mastery of greed and distance could carry the audience for the film’s two-and-a-half hours, it is the chime of Dano’s whining pleas and the tumble of his weak limbs that push Lewis’ characterization of misanthropy into drive.
The grandeur of the epic grasps the spectator in the first fifteen minutes of the film, which are completely free of dialogue: amid high pitches and rattling, we witness a lone miner dive deep into his hole to discover the Midas touch. Soon his tiny gold mine becomes a well and Plainview gains associates to haul buckets of grease into a black pond. Eventually the oil well machinery litters the dusty golden landscape, absorbing the pool and leaving Plainview a rich man who has never lost the perseverance of his desperate, gold-digging past. The sequence ends as an oil well motions against the hills and a setting sun shines in front of Plainview; though still covered in the day’s spoils, he now coos an orphaned baby on his knees, demonstrating the need for affection at the core of the stoic gaze, a need that can only be satisfied from a creature as non-threatening and ignorant as child.
Though there are countless overt references to the Bible in the dialogue, the over-riding Biblical theme is again a pairing, that of Cain and Abel, that is represented by dark and light. Visual allusions abound in the dripping black with which Daniel baptizes his foundling son H. W. and again as the dark sheen of his face gleams in the firelight during the sick ecstasy of oil burst. The hypocrisy of Eli is apparent early in the film; his dream of a powerful ministry allows him to accept the oil-thirsty Daniel’s bargaining price for his family’s land in exchange for a small bonus he in fact never receives. Sky blue and heavenly clouds are reflected in a broad puddle of oil when Eli walks by, symbolizing his false hopes to turn oil money into his own godly enterprise. In the shadows of his covered church the young minister wrestles a devil made of air, and then runs gloriously into the sun’s rays to release Satan to the breeze. However, the simplicity of the Cain and Abel story or the dark/light metaphor is misleading in a film with such superb details. The characters develop gradually and significantly with each scene so that each glance and gesture is rich with meaning, as is the meticulous framing which often profiles Eli and Daniel as they debate and demand.
The sheen of oil, often running and spurting like blood, is magically enhanced by an expert sound design, leaving the empty landscape a wondrous audio retreat. The clanking of oil rigs and the roar of fire is exquisitely highlighted by the score composed by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead. The spacious haunting sounds of Arvo Pärt infiltrate one scene; it is in this tradition of music that Greenwood composes the disturbing score so reliant on silence. An escalating chord quickens your pulse, and an eerie dialogue of strings mimics the pastor and the oilman’s verbal duels.
Daniel Plainview’s most vicious turn is revealed in the emotional climax preceding the finale in which he claims his son is nothing to him but competition, but the evil root within Daniel, which has grown stronger through fortune and its soothing decadence, and the fraudulent hysterics of Eli’s ministry meet again in the more anticipated showdown. This scene at last relieves the spectator of the title’s prediction, but more importantly completes a circle within the film’s narrative while at the same time reaching a pinnacle of comic irony. The scene takes place twenty years after Eli and Daniel first meet and reveals how the rivals’ antagonism has developed through the Roaring Twenties; Eli has become a radio preacher and speaks with an affected theatric confidence, while Daniel, an alcoholic in a mansion complete with a bowling alley, is even more alone after having rejected his son. Now, he drools hate in his lonely but expensive pit of despair. The mounting tension between the actors is never more biting as in their final duel, and the paradox and power of money never more translucent. Now Greenwood’s cryptic score is abandoned as Hadyn's major chords and a dancing time signature celebrate Abel's murder of Cain and irony's triumph over violence.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cronenberg's Gangster Film, "Eastern Promises"

As the title of Cronenberg’s 2005 film A History of Violence suggests, Cronenberg has a penchant for violence, and as the converted will know, this proclivity for blood extends to the squishy and squirmy. Thus it stands to reason that after mastering horror, sci-fi, and drama (and creating his own sub-genre which could be termed psych-fantasy-horror) Cronenberg would at last grapple with the most acclaimed genre of violence, the gangster film. Although Cronenberg had previously battled David Lynch in the “who is the weirdest” director debate, with Eastern Promises Cronenberg competes with Coppola and Scorsese to recount the story of an immigrant family in the throngs of the crime underworld.
To his credit, Cronenberg enlisted Viggo Mortensen to enchant the audience with Russian gangland exoticism. Mortensen, who so expertly walked the line between good and evil in A History of Violence, confuses our moral compass again. In Violence, his character's darker impulses had a veneer of pure Americana complete with diner pie and football games. This time he plays the foreigner, Nikolai, a tattooed mafia chauffeur whose moral roots are grounded outside the mob in goodness. A brief scene with a Scotland Yard detective in the second half of the film explains Nikolai’s true character; although Nikolai is determined to be a starred member of the Vory v Zakone, it is only to usurp power from evil, as we learn that Nikolai is in fact an informer. What’s more, although Mortensen’s gangster cool captivates the audience with its rugged elegance (i.e. when he puts his cigarette out on his tongue), an undercurrent of honesty portends his mafia future.
Naomi Watts as Anna is the most obvious of Nikolai’s longings towards honest goodness. The embodiment of pure female righteousness, Anna, a childless but baby-loving midwife, is the ideal foil to the testosterone-driven mafia. Perhaps it is divine intervention that brings this innocent creature to speak with the head of the Russian mob about a diary found on a teen that died in labor. The baby was saved and Anna feels it is her duty to find the family of the nameless deceased so as to save the newborn from foster care. Following a business card to the fine Russian restaurant found within the dead girl’s journal she meets the owner Semyon played by Armin Mueller-Stahl. It is this through this initial encounter that Semyon realizes the diary contains the most secret of secret mafia information, and that as long as the diary exists his operation is in danger of being discovered. The plot consists essentially of two intermingled intrigues:, Anna seeks justice in the name of the orphan baby while Semyon tries to keep the story quiet; in the more ambiguous, Nikolai struggles to climb into the mafia inner circle though his motives always remain mysterious. Is he seeking power? Or justice? In the name of Hollywood simplicity the film’s ending unites baby and Anna. Yet the second intrigue intones a sadder note: who is Nikolai and what are his true goals?
Although this film by no means competes with The Godfather or Goodfellas, it also fails to continue the originality of Cronenberg classics such as Videodrome or Dead Ringers. While the Cronenberg touch is much lighter this time around, the legacy is present in the subtle but transgressive homoeroticism, and in the exposition of Viggo Mortensen, first in black boy shorts and then completely nude. To this extent, Cronenberg modernizes the gangster picture and the Hollywood blockbuster. Although sexual tension between Anna and Nikolai is alluded to in the script, it is only homoerotic tension between Nikolai and Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) that surfaces. Perhaps Anna is too prissy in her cable-knit sweaters and hospital clothes to ignite a real fantasy for Nikolai (or the audience). In fact, he appears to be more interested sexually in Anna’s motorcycle. Thus, there is more on screen tension between the two men than there is between Anna and Nikolai, the scripted romance. Comforting Kirill, Nikolai embraces him from behind, stroking his shoulders. Finally, the camera closes in on the men as if to film a kiss when Nikolai lightly brushes Kirill’s cheek, and then backs away. In a more playful homo-sexed moment, a drunken Kirill falls to Nikolai’s feet, then on hands and knees pushes his ass in Nikolai’s direction. Kirill’s limp wrist is a mafia joke, and a source of denial and shame. It is never clear to what extent Nikolai is manipulating Kirill for power, allowing his butt slaps and ogling with hopes of a payback. Camera work enhances the queerness of their relationship, making their awkward co-dependency the most compelling element of their scenes together.
If your knowledge of Russia culture is as lacking as my own, and consists of vodka, bathhouses (and I suppose a sprinkling of literature) you will be pleased to see more of what you know in Eastern Promises. Vodka is not only a favorite beverage, it also serves as a disinfectant and an inflammant. There is also a Russian bathhouse, which provides Viggo Mortensen an occasion to expose his lean toned body, all the while keeping the film’s heterosexual meter high with a gruesome fight scene. Actually, our hero is the only nude combatant; the other fighters are heavily clothed in black leather jackets, making Viggo’s inked skin even more arresting. Fans will be happy to see here that Cronenberg is up to his usual tricks: just when you imagine that Nikolai has escaped the obese soldier’s knife, a last gasp of life requires a poking assault complete with an expert sound design of squish. There is also a humorous element to the scene’s anxiety: Mortensen’s nudity and his combatant’s girth freshly recall Borat, another film that posited contradictions of homophobia and mass culture.
The fight scene is the centerpiece of Eastern Promises and it is unfortunate that all that follows is a sentimental tying of strings. Anna’s dream of becoming a mom is fulfilled, and the dark and mysterious Nikolai becomes more of a gallant superhero. Yet Viggo Mortensen is the heart of the film, and his acting and charm are almost enough to temper the script’s melodrama and toxic finale. It is the last shot of Mortensen that reminds us that Nikolai’s true character is impenetrable. As he drinks alone in the dimly lit red of the Russian restaurant a hopeful voice-over of the dead Tatiana reads from her diary that life will be better in London than Russia, combining the travesty of an immigrant’s misfortune with Nikolai’s lonely vodka-induced stare. Irony has not entirely escaped Eastern Promises thanks to Mortensen’s skill and the remnants of Cronenberg’s vision.